Friday, February 18, 2011

Visiting the Emperor

There are only two chances a year for a normal human being to see the Japanese Emperor and the Inner Emperor Palace. One is Emperors Birthday on December 23rd. I actually planned to visit him on this day. But then I heard that the second event is bigger, so I decided to go to the Emperors New Years Greetings on January 2nd. Entrance to the palace area starts at 9:30 and ends at about 2:30 in the afternoon. In this period, the Emperor comes out every half an hour, together with his family, to hold the New Years Greetings. On his Birthday, the entrance is only till 11:30 am, so it' maybe really crowded (at least, this was one reason, why I decided not to go on this day).
But as you can imagine, there were still a lot of people, most of them Japanese but I also saw one or two foreigners.  The security controls were also quite strict, so a good organisation was needed, but the Japanese did, of course, pretty well. I would like to explain their system in a few words. First of all, you have to know that there is a large square in front of the Emperors Palace. That makes it easy to handle so many people, of course. There were two entrances to the square with security checkpoints. As I mentioned before, the checks were quite strict. They had no x-ray or body scanners, but they controlled every person and every bag by hand. I even had to switch on my camera to prove that it is no bomb or something. Finally, we passed the checkpoint and got a smile and a little flag to wave with it.
After passing the checkpoints we were queued. They had encircled nine areas. In each area the people were ordered in eight queues, so that eight people stood parallel in one line. When one area was full, it was closed and the next area was opened. From time to time, they openedone area again, allowing the people to exit and to go to the main gate. It took us about half an hour to wait in our area, less then I have expected. It was funny to see how strict they were with their system; after moving together a bit to talk, we were immediately requested to go back to the place we belong.
We entered the Inner Palace area through the nijubashi – bridge and the main gate and arrived on another square, with the Emperor Palace on the left and a tribune for the press on the right. After waiting about 20 minutes again, the place was already well-stuffed, someone proclaimed the appearance of the Imperial Family via loudspeakers. Everybody waved his flag, and so did we, and then the Emperor appeared on the balcony of his Residence. After a short introduction from his secretary, he held a 10 minutes speech to us where he wished us a happy new year. Then the audience waved again and cheered.
And that was my Emperor visit, basically. We followed the crowd to the exit and had a good sushi – lunch in Shibuya afterwards. Visiting the Emperor for New Years Greetings is not so spectacular, but I’m glad that I took the chance. Even when a lab-member told me recently, that it IS possible to get a guided tour through the Palace, when you are not a tourist but a permanent resident, like me. I only need to find out where to apply for it.

if you want to see more pictures, click here

Sunday, February 13, 2011

New Years Eve in Tokyo

When you think of New-Year-Celebration in Asia, the first things that come in your mind are probably china crackers and fireworks. Same for me, so I was a little surprised when I recognized that New Year in Japan is everything, but no noisy fireworks. Its more the opposite, a time to come together with the family and go to a Shinto – shrine and pray for a good luck in the New Year. New-Year in China is celebrated in February, and I recently had the chance to see a Chinese New-Year-Celebration in Chinatown in Yokohama. But I will come to that in another post. Here, it’s New Year in Japan. There are a lot of traditions to celebrate this event. One is to eat long soba noodles. It is said that this will safe you a long life. And as I said often before, when the point comes to increasing your lifetime, we should listen to Japanese, they have the oldest persons in the world. So, one of my New Year resolution is to eat more soba noodles. I recently started; see the newest food-in-Japan post.
A New-Years-fire; a shintoistic ritual
But let’s get back to New-Years-Eve. 
Because we have no family here and we are not shintoistic, we decided to celebrate New Years-coming in a semi-traditional semi-western-style way. Roppongi is a district known as a place for tourists, with a lot of bars and clubs. But it also has the zojoji-temple. This Buddhist temple is located just next to the Tokyo-Tower and offers a great perspective on the modern steel tower, with the old wooden temple in the front. So, we went there to celebrate New-Year’s coming at the zojoji-temple, with the highly illuminated Tokyo Tower dominating the area. It’s unnecessary to say that it was quite awesome. On the one hand there were Japanese people, praying in the Shinto shrine or listening to the drums of a Buddhist ritual in the temple, on the other hand were the foreigners and tourists, standing together, drinking a beer and enjoying the atmosphere. Japanese people seem to be very relaxed concerning religious matters, at least at this place. They sold transparent helium-balloons for a few hundred yen. At the end of the New Year countdown, thousands of balloons climbed the sky, accompanied by the cheers of the people. It was a really great experience.
999 air balloons ..
Afterwards, we went to one of the clubs I mentioned before. But this is not to talk about in a public blog ^^
But to have the experience of celebrating New Year in a Japanese way, we went to the famous meji-shrine with some Japanese friends next day. It was, of course, well visited. The shrine is the biggest in Tokyo and the path leading to the shrine is for sure 30 meters wide. However, we had to wait for more than an hour and the queue was maybe 600 meters long. Fortunately, Japanese are the best organized people I know and they had an efficient system to deal with so many visitors. It is too much to explain here, but it includes a special subway-entry only for this event. 
Meji-shrine next morning
When we finally reached the shrine, we prayed for the new year while throwing coins to the temple and clapping the hands for two times. Because 5 is a lucky number in Japan, 5 or 50 yen coins are most effective.  The amount of coins varies. Most of the people throw one or two coins, but there was at least one guy who threw 2, 3 hands of coins to the temple. Probably he has had a very bad year 2010. Hopefully, the year will be better for him, as for all of us. At least for me, I feel well prepared now.  
To see more pictures, click here
pay the gods for a good fortune

Skiing in Japan

From Dec. 28 to Dec. 30 I went with some friends to the small village Omachi-Onsen in Nagano-Prefecture for skiing. The prefecture is located in the west of Honshu, just a few hundred kilometres from Tokyo. It is a famous ski-region, especially since its capital city, Nagano, hosted the Olympic Winter Games 1998. The region is called “the Japanese Alps” and has many mountains with a height of 2500 to 3000 meters and a lot of snow in the winter. Actually, the Japanese Alps are the reason why the winter in Tokyo is so mild, 10 – 0 °C and sunshine almost every day. All the snow comes down in the Japanese Alps, respectively in Nagano.
So, we had white pistes and a very nice ski-trip. And it was cheaper than I have expected. We were lucky to have a Japanese friend, who found an offer for students for 21000 Y (about 200 €) for 3 days, including the bus from Tokyo to Nagano, the pass for the lifts, ski‑equipment (even clothes) and a stay in a typical Japanese hotel (ryokan) with breakfast and dinner for two nights. Thanks, Tohru.
We saw the first snow-covered mountains during a rest
Actually, there is not so much that I can tell about the ski-trip. It was snowing all the time, the pistes were good, the snow was fine and it was a great thing. The ski area was not that big, maybe 10 – 15 pistes, but totally enough for three days. Oh, yes, and I even saw a Japanese serow (Ger: Japanischer Serau)  when I was on the ski-lift. Accept of the serow, you can have a quite similar ski experience in the European Alps. But what you can not have in Europe, and what made the trip even better, was the hotel. It was, as I mentioned above, a typical Japanese ryokan. The experience of staying there is completely different from a European hotel. First of all, you have a typical Japanese room, which is very minimalist. Almost no furniture, except of a large table and two chairs at the window. The floor is covered with Tatami-mats and you sit on the floor on silk-pillows around the table. 
To make it more comfortable in the evening when you sit together and drink a beer or sake you use special back-rests. When you want to sleep, you just move the table to the side or outdoors and roll a futon bed on the floor. It sounds hard and indeed it is a bit harder than our western-beds, but not so uncomfortable as it sounds. You get used to it after one or two nights. And of course you put of your shoes before you enter the room.
The ryokan was run by some older women. They wore kimonos all the time and were very friendly, although they did not speak any English. In the morning they called us for Japanese breakfast to the dining room. Japanese breakfast is very …substantial: with rice, grilled fish, some salads and sweet nori and, of course, miso-soup.
Actually, it was more like lunch at 8 o’clock in the morning. After lunch breakfast, we used the ski-bus to get to the pistes. The trip was maybe 20 – 30 min. Then it was skiing the whole day, including lunch on the pistes. Lunch was actually the only thing we had to pay for. The restaurant was ok, but quite expensive and it was the only one, means it was very crowded during lunch-time. Most of the pistes were illuminated, so we could use them even after sunset and went home at about 5 or 6 o’clock. In the evening, the friendly women stored our ski-stuff and served a great Japanese dinner with multiple courses in our room.  
The ryokans very pretty inner courtyard
The whole ryokan was on ground-level and the window, resp. glass-front, led to a pretty inner courtyard, which was covered with snow and completely silent. But the ultimate + point was the outdoor thermal bath, called onsen, which was part of the ryokan and open the whole night. There is almost nothing more relaxing than a bath in an outdoor onsen after a ski-day, with hot thermal water and snow flakes falling on you. Onsen are extremely popular here, and because Japan is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, these thermal springs are almost everywhere. In towns with many onsen, it is included in the name, as in Omachi-Onsen. It is comparable to a “Kurort” in Germany. 
Except the pistes, the onsen was the place where we spent most of the time. So, when you go to Japan in winter and plan to go skiing, I can definitely recommend to ask Tohru for organising the trip ^^. Or you search by yourself for a ski-trip, but make sure tostay in a typical Japanese ryokan. Its not that expensive and an ultimate Japanese experience.

For more pictures, click here